APIs: The Building Blocks of the Future

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Two weeks ago we released an infographic showing the life of a normal person as we imagine it in 2025. The kinds of automated services illustrated in that graphic that will appear over the next decade are all enabled by the same piece of technology: the API. What APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, do is provide programmers with a simple way of connecting their programming into the data and services of an existing program. Any websites that embed Google or Facebook logins are accessing an API provided by Google or Facebook to authenticate users' identities. Similarly, as personal data becomes stored in the cloud, companies with permission to access such data are increasingly plugged in to their consumers' changing status and needs. Beyond just explaining how APIs are driving technological advancements across every industry, our latest Digital Lab Thought Piece provides useful tips for any business on navigating a world based on APIs - whether that means activating the APIs that are already out there, or building one of your own to create new revenue stream or make your services indispensable.

Text of APIs: The Building Blocks of the Future

  • APIs BUILDING BLOCKS OF THE FUTURE 1 November 2013
  • 2013 2025 2
  • How do they do that? You may wonder how Apples Siri or Google Now works its magic behind the scenes. Its more than the voice recognitionalthough thats actually not too shabby. Somehow, its able to take action for you across your day: adding events to calendars, calling people, sending messages, knowing where traffic is and how to avoid it, and answering cryptic queries for information. And they keep getting better, and adding more services rapidly. How do they make that easy? Or, you may notice your customers using Mint to visualize their financial data, and betterment.com to track progress towards goalshow do they work together? How does someone sign into one site using a completely other site like Facebook? How do I post an Instagram photo of the Spicy Basil Chicken dish from my Foursquare login to my Facebook timeline? How does an ad for Burberry I see on my weather app know its raining where I am? Maybe your neighbor suddenly got a site built in a weekend for his nonprofit, and it collects user accounts, has newsletters, and makes money from purchases of books from Amazon. How did that happen? Does he have 20 developers in his basement? The answerin an acronymis APIs1. Driven by a need to access and integrate data stored in the cloud, by startups building cloud-services and by the need to build mobile apps, people are rapidly adding APIs to their applications and making them available publically. APIs allow developers to build on your data and services, and in turn allow others to build on theirs. Other platforms aggregate this functionality into even more useful services, just as you can aggregate theirs. Businesses with APIs are suddenly connected with and adding value on top of other businesses, and serving their customers in new and interesting ways. Or, like Amazon, seeing an entire new revenue stream emerge. So, whats an API? 1 Which is a TLA for Application Programming Interface 3
  • Whats an API? Simply, APIs are ways of allowing different digital services to connect and share information with each other. They are ways to connect pieces of software togethereither a new user experience to backend services, or backend services together to a workflow. Its closely related to, and is a bit of an outgrowth of, the IT strategy of service oriented architectures, which tried to reduce duplication and increase ROI by combining common enterprise functionality into single services. In contrast, web APIs are generally available to the broad public or to registered developers or partners. Web APIs also have very different technical requirementsin particular, security and scale are much more a concern for public APIs. In the lingo, you call an API, and the API does something and, usually, returns data. The following graphic visualizes that action behind the scenes of a movie ticket purchasing app. The person who provides the API function is said to publish an API, and is an API provider. You can find descriptions of available APIs in registries like ProgrammableWeb.com or Khronos. The rapid pace of innovation in startups, funded by ready capital, is being lead by designer and developers, and the lingua franca of developers is APIs. 4
  • Movie Info API Enter relevant search query Movie Ticket App Search Movie name Times Theater locations Buy Now Movie name Times Theater locations Buy Now Name Credit Card Info Password Submit user payment data Payment Confirmed! Thank you! Return payment confirmation Payment API 5 Transmit the requested data
  • APIs are revolutionizing the web revolution. The rise of available APIs has coincided with the rise of a tremendous number of single-purpose mobile apps, or new financial tools. Right now we are seeing a great unbundling of customer service into a set of apps and websites, spread across a customer journey. Where banking customers used to interact with onemaybe twoweb applications to manage their money and investments, there is now a wide variety of apps they use dailylike Mint.com, betterment.com, or Nutmeg, and trading apps. You can use APIs to participate fully in this ecosystem, share data, and integrate partners. You can gain efficiencies, and still create great experiences, by taking advantage of other services your users already use, or to find out more about the user from partner services. You can also use APIs to write functionality once, and use it in your mobile web, your mobile app, and your website so the user gets a consistent experience. To take credit card payments on your website, you use a API to call a processing vendor, and get back whether the transaction suceeded. To sign in with Facebook on your app, you use a set of APIs to ask Facebook if this person exists, and you get back confirmation. You can use Google Map APIs to display your store locations, and even give directions. Better, you can start adding value to your digital experiences based on data you can learn about your user in real-time. You 6
  • can use Facebook APIs to find their friends that have liked your content. You can use an Akamai API call to see where your site visitor is, and then Weather.com API to find out if its hot where they are, and then adjust your website content or product recommendations accordingly. If you have a mobile app that uses data or content from your existing CMS systems, youre probably using APIs already to call back to your home systems for information. More interestingly, people are storing data from connected objects like Fitbits or Nike Fuelbandsin the cloud, where the data can be made widely available. With the right permission from your user, you can connect to that data, and change how your user experiences your brand. Also, with the right strategy, data, and technical planning, you might be able to provide valuable data and features through APIs yourself. You can make your unique functions available to partners, startups and even other groups in your own company. In addition to making your offering more accessible across emerging devices and platforms, you might be able to consider APIs as yet another channel for commerce and brand growth. APIs are the building blocks for a very interesting, flexible future. Lets see how you can useand providethem. 7
  • NUMBER OF APIS FROM 2005 TO 2013 10,000 9,000 8,000 7,000 6,000 5,000 4,000 3,000 2,000 1,000 0 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 http://blog.programmableweb.com/2013/04/30/9000-apis-mobile-gets-serious/ 8 2012 2013
  • Yay Developers, But So What? This is great for developers, but how does this affect your business? In a nutshell, in two big waysmaking what you do easier and making your customers use you everywhere. Its the way you can build partnerships with other apps your clients are already using. Its how you can own transactions and features that developers will use to build the next great app. Customers are going to have a wide choice, and were not sitting back and watching that landscape hence, our API platform. Skip Potter, Senior DIrector of CapitalOne Labs At the end of the day, there are two ways you can embrace APIs as a consumer, and as a provider. Its worth cataloging what features and functions youre providing now, and seeing if there are internal or external services you can leverage into an API instead of writing new systems yourself. Lets look at the reasons for leveraging external APIs more heavily for your experience architecture. 9
  • Consuming APIs First, youre probably using a bunch of external APIs already on your websitelike Facebook Connect and Graph, posting things to Instagram or Twitter, or using a prefab widget for social sharing. But theres a world of emerging API providers that you might not be aware of. What do you gain by keeping on top of this market, and using external providers? 10
  • FOCUS First, by leveraging external API providers and cloud based platforms, you gain focus. You no longer have to worry as much about developing custom features or spending time in complex system integration projects. You can spend more time and energy focused on developing rich, amazing experiences, and less building custom backends. CONNECTION Your customers are already using a growing set of mobile apps and websites to handle bits of their lives. By leveraging external platform APIs, you can connect to customers where they are, and use the data they are already sharing with their friends to drive better experiences and reach their network as well. INNOVATION You probably cant invest in building a high-volume SMS platform to provide extra security. Luckily, Twilio has already done it for you. You may have some crazy engagement idea that requires new technologies for your corporation most likely, theres a startup out there with an API. The more you can leverage external APIs, the broader your canvas becomes for providing amazing experiences and services to your customer. AGILITY Along with innovation comes marketing agility. You can find new capabilities and build partnerships with critical components and features all faster than you could recreate that wheel that theyve already created, marketed, and are in dire competition to provide the best of. NEW CONCERNS Its not all roses, to be sure. Any startup you build an experience around might, themselves, pivot to something not so useful to you. They may run out of funding. They might get purchased or get a significant investment by a competitor, or someone completely orthogonal to your business. Sometimes, startup APIs dont exactly work (or scale) as advertised. Or, like in the case of Twitter, the APIs and protocols change when they want, rather than when you need. The key is to pick and choose which APIs to keep internal, and which to push off. The good news is that the range of APIs to keep internal shrinks to the ones that ma